Saturday, November 10, 2007

Chapter ten: Could I take this guy?

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I went home and caught a few hours sleep and sometime while I slept, the winds of the upper air propelled Sky City into the light. The dawn came, morning advanced, and I had just finished breakfast in the hotel coffee shop when a busboy came over to my table to tell me that a motor squid had arrived for me.

Calvin Lee was already in the squid. "Sleep well?" he asked.

"I don't remember, which means I slept pretty well," I told him. He grunted in response.

"We're off to see Robert Grayling," he said after the squid left the dock. "We called and his secretary told us to come right over. That's odd, isn't it?"

"No stalling, no runarounds, no 'please see my people about it?' From someone with Grayling's sort of money?" I nodded. "Yeah, something is up with Mr. Grayling. Did you tell them the purpose of the visit?"

"They didn't ask."

"Something has him rattled," I said. "Whatever it is, we'll find out soon enough."

"That's the way I see it, too," Calvin replied, nodding.

Grayling's office was in the Skyhook Column, the large cluster of bloons that were directly connected to the Skyhook. They don't have direct access to the Hook, of course. There's a fairly narrow terminus mouth to the Skyhook, with a lot of ancillary equipment and a huge organization to insure the most efficient transport of material up to and down from Anchorage, over seventy thousand kilometers up. The bloons surrounding the Skyhook serve as extra lift, and allow more servicing equipment and personnel to work on the Skyhook itself.

The Column towers above even the Heights where Marjori Low and the others of the social elite of Sky City live. The outer layer of the Column has the most expensive office clusters on Venus. Robert Whitley Grayling had one of the largest of them.

The bloons that housed Grayling's business offices were over a kilometer above the mass of Sky City. From that height the bloons below looked like a frothy mass of bubbles, both large and small, in hues of silver, green, and brown, stretching out nearly to the horizon. Only a line of white marked the north and south directions, where the City's edge was closer. To the east and west, the Circle stretched forever.
"Something has him rattled," I said. "Whatever it is, we'll find out soon enough."

Grayling's company was named Cytherean Flux, an import export firm with a number of manufacturing subsidiaries. Some of the displays set up in the lobby showed beautiful women in bloonsilk garments. I made the assumption that the company traded in garments, rather than women, but I might have been wrong. Other photographs came with text descriptions of the fine work done by imported electronics, pharmaceuticals, small electric motors, and bioengineered organisms. One ongoing project apparently involved the flavor alteration of bloon produced proteins to mimic unavailable Earth delicacies like lamb and salmon. As if anyone had an idea of what they really tasted like, I thought uncharitably.

The receptionist was a short blonde woman with a reserved smile, but we had almost no chance to speak with her before a smooth young man with an even smoother manner came out of an elevator toward us.

I felt a certain adrenalin twinge as the young man approached. He was compact rather than short, with a bland face that could disappear in a crowd. He had the usual brown eyes, average brown hair, and the general mixed race look that most of us Lunars have. But he looked like someone who was not going to stop at obstacles, for all his seeming deference.

"Mr. Lee, Mr. Honlin?" he said, holding out a hand to greet us. "I'm Walter Smith, Mr. Grayling's assistant."

Calvin and I shook the indicated appendage, each in turn. One shake of Smith's hand confirmed my initial impression. There was an easy solidity to his grasp that put several more of my inner sentinels on alert. I'd have been willing to bet that he worked out at least six times a week in some activity that, if used to a purpose, could kill or maim an antagonist in seconds. Smith had the look and carriage of a trained fighter, hidden beneath a mannered exterior. The automatic internal question "Could I take this guy?" had come back, "You don't want to find out."

We followed Smith into the elevator, and let it haul us up the three levels to Grayling's private office. It was an older elevator, with a slow motor, so our eyes had begun to adjust to dimmer light by the time the doors opened. The sudden brightness made us blink.

Grayling's office was almost overpoweringly bright. The basic color was white, relieved only by dead black furniture and a few abstract wall hangings in primary colors. The exterior wall was an unbroken sheet of transparency, utterly clean and with so few reflections that it seemed almost invisible, as if the entire office perched on the side of a cliff with a sheer drop to the curve of the City below. The effect was almost overpowering, probably intentionally so, a bit of an edge in any dealings that Grayling might pursue.

Smith preceded us as we stepped out of the elevator into the office. There was another man cut from the same mold as Smith, seated to our immediate right as we entered the room. In the distant corner was what I presumed was Grayling's desk, since the man I took to be Grayling was seated at it. Smith announced in a flat voice without inflection, "Mr. Lee and Mr. Honlin are here to see you, sir."

I was mildly surprised that Smith's voice carried all the way to Grayling's desk, which was a good fifteen meters from the elevator. But Grayling rose and met us halfway. He must have made some signatory gesture to the other men in the room, or maybe they always left the room when Grayling took a meeting. At any rate they both vanished behind sudden openings in the walls that were not apparent to the eye once they had closed again. Whether or not they continued to observe us after they had left, I couldn't say, but from time to time skin on the back of my neck would tighten.

Grayling was a tallish man, maybe one hundred and eighty centimeters, who walked with the carriage of one who had grown up under lower gravity -- another Lunar transplant, in other words. Smith had also had a trace of that look to him, as had the other man, whose name had never been given to us. So Grayling was Luna-born and hired Lunars for his staff. What that meant, I didn't know. His file has said he'd come to Venus while in his teens, along with his father who had left Luna after some failed business dealings and a divorce. The elder Grayling had then died a few years later, leaving his son with a small textile business on the eastern edge of the City.
The sudden brightness made us blink.

After that there was a typical story of business success. Young Grayling had leveraged his newly inherited textile business into the Luna/Venus trade, abetted both by family connections back on Luna and a good sense of what the newly fashion conscious consumers on both worlds might like to possess in any given year. By his mid-thirties, Robert W. Grayling had become rich. By his mid-fifties, he had become extremely rich.

The man who now shook our hands was trim, with an oval face topped by graying brown hair long enough to hide his slightly prominent ears. His face betrayed a certain amount of strain, recent enough to clash with the already established lines of his skin. The established lines of his face were those of someone who was long accustomed to giving commands and having them obeyed. "Hello, gentlemen," he said to us. "To what do I owe the visit?"

"We would like to talk to your son," Calvin told him. "He has a comm line, but he does not seem to answer it."

Grayling tightened at the mention of his son. Then relaxed slightly when Calvin's entire statement had sunk in.

"Why do you want to see him?" he asked. "Is he suspected of any wrongdoing?"

"No," Calvin assured him. "The entire matter is a bit complicated. We are investigating the murder of a woman named Sheila Mason. One of our leads in the case is a friend of Miss Mason's named Doria Adams, who we think may have been a friend of your son's. So we need to talk to your son about Miss Adams and her whereabouts.

Grayling bit his lip for an indecisive moment as he took that in, then seemingly made a decision. With that decision came an almost inaudible sigh. He said, "When I heard that two homicide detectives wanted to see me, I expected the worst. Now I don't know what to expect."
[F]rom time to time skin on the back of my neck would tighten.

He looked at us and made a gesture of explanation. "I was afraid that you had come to tell me my son was dead, you see. I haven't seen or heard from him, no one has, in over two weeks. Quite frankly, the worry is enough to drive me nearly insane."

Calvin scowled at this news. I don't want to even think what my own face looked like. "Why haven't you reported this?" Calvin demanded.

Grayling winced. "Because I thought it might be a kidnapping, of course. I was hoping that I would be able to get Thomas back by paying a ransom, and I feared that involving the police might panic the kidnappers. Or whatever. I hired several private detectives, of course, and I made some discreet inquiries through my contacts in the bureaucracy at City Central. They tell me that Thomas' bodyguard, Mickey Deere has left the City, but Thomas has not. That absolutely should not happen. Mick is a reliable man, or so I thought, and he would not have left Thomas voluntarily. So I don't know what to think."

"Have you received any other information that might indicate that there has been a kidnapping?" I asked.

"No, none," Grayling replied. "But the other possibilities are much too horrible to think about."

"Do you know of anyone who might try to get at you through your son for reasons other than ransom?" I asked.

He looked blank. Which was odd. He wasn't dumb, the idea must have occurred to him. But he asked, "Like what?"

"Such as business dealings where someone might be trying for an extra advantage, or deals that have gone sour enough so that someone might try to exact revenge."

"Lord no," he said. "At least I don't think so. I mean, there are often sore losers in any big deal, but . . . ." He paused. "What sort of maniac would harm a man's family for revenge over business dealings?"

That was a little too ingenuous for a man who'd made millions, I thought to myself. He must really be under a lot of strain to be trying "poor naive little me," on us. But I let it pass.

"You say that you hired private investigators to check into your son's disappearance," I said. "Can we speak to them? Are you willing to turn over their reports and other files to us?"

Grayling bit his lip again. "I suppose so," he said. "Yes, that would probably be a good idea."

He looked at us and another flicker of anguish made it through his expression. "I love my son," he told us, as if he were afraid that someone might think otherwise. "I try to do right by him, but I'm often unsure as to what that means. His mother died fifteen years ago, a suicide. You don't get over something like that, even as an adult. As for an eight year old boy . . ."

He paused, again trying for control. He was obviously used to being in control, and his lack of it where his son was concerned was an open wound. He started up again, "I presume you know that my son was in a drug addiction program a while back?"

"That was where he met Miss Adams," Calvin told him.

"Yes, that is true," Grayling said. "Thomas was seen in Miss Adams's company just before he vanished. You will find that in the investigators' reports. Thomas may have been in love with Miss Adams, in fact. I never met her, however, and although Mr. Deere was supposed to report on such things to me, I think that he may have had some mixed loyalties. If Thomas asked him to keep a secret from me, Mickey might have done so from time to time, even though I paid his salary."

Grayling looked at us. "Mickey Deere is a good man. He has been my employee for nearly twenty years and for much of that time he has served at Thomas' companion. I cannot believe that he would be involved in harming Thomas in any way. Nor can I believe that he would have left Thomas, if Thomas were still alive. So I'm at my wit's end."

"When can we see the investigators' reports?" I asked.

"I'll have my secretary give them to you," he said.

"We will probably wish to speak to the investigators themselves," I suggested.
Thomas may have been in love with Miss Adams, in fact.

"That will be fine," he said absently. His face had developed that look again. Of trying not to think about images that came all to easily to the imagination. Not even money can buy off imagination. That is one of the reasons why money has few charms for me.

"We'll check out these reports and such and get back to you, Mr. Grayling," Calvin told him. "Come on, Ed. Let's see the secretary." My partner was obviously uncomfortable. Maybe he wasn't used to seeing so many important people quite so naked.

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